This is part 2 of a blog series that looks at some of the detriments or pitfalls of diagnosing, labelling, and standardized testing.  Please review prior blogs, particularly the most recent one here, to get up to speed!!

Let’s jump right in to Pitfall #3:

3.) Point of Performance Deficits Vs. Test Performance

Every child has a unique brain!  And that brain will perform differently under different circumstances.  Many children with Executive Functioning Deficits – Autism, ADHD, children with poor attention or working memory – they encounter what is called a “Point of Performance” deficit.  This means that they can tell you EXACTLY what they are supposed to do, but then in the MOMENT that they need that information, it goes out the window.  They freeze.  They can’t do it, or they do it wrong.

I see this ALL.THE.TIME.  I see these children fail at social tasks, planning tasks, academic tasks … in the moment when it matters, they can’t perform.

BUT … when we TEST these kids, they can often complete our assessment tasks.  We test in a nice, quiet, environment free of distractions.  The tests have visuals that support comprehension.  We break complex tasks like reading into smaller parts, such as recognizing and labelling letters, identifying the first sound in a word, or determining if two words rhyme or not.  Some kids do GREAT on these assessments!

We test, to see if they can do these skills as well as their peers – to see if they have average skills.  That is the PURPOSE of assessment, after all!  BUT, then we add in the MEANING, the INTERPRETATION.  We interpret the assessment!  We say things like, “Well, if they can do all these skills, they are FINE.  They are just a little behind in reading.  They will pick it up”.  Etc.

Are you following the (lack of) logic here?  The child gets referred for testing, because there is a PROBLEM – they aren’t reading as well as they should.  They get tested, and parents and teachers get told there is no problem! Or at least, the problem doesn’t lie in the “components” of reading.

This is true – the child doesn’t struggle with the components of reading; they struggle with the PERFORMANCE TASK of reading.

Let me give you an example to put this in perspective:  Last week, I met a girl who is having trouble reading.  I reviewed her Psychologist report.  It was reported that her phonological processing skills were in the 91st percentile.  This is well above average!!  This means that she could listen for and reflect on the sounds in words.  At least, the sounds in the words that were being used on the test.  Based on this, there was no recommendation for phonological awareness support.

When I looked at samples of her writing, she was not correctly representing sounds with letters.  She would spell “split” as “spit”.  She was NOT able to APPLY her knowledge about sounds when spelling.  She did not even “hear” or “know” to apply the sound knowledge in order to accurately spell.

She tests above average but spells BELOW average.  In this case, the standardized test actually provides NO HELP!!  The test doesn’t identify the Point of Performance deficit.

In contrast, the PERFORMANCE ASSESSMENT I completed showed me exactly WHERE she has a problem, and provided a hypothesis as to WHY.  It also provided information on what to teach – the knowledge, information, cues, and strategies of HOW to help her learn to spell!  We have since incorporated APPLICATION of phonological processing into her literacy program, where she APPLIES these skills during FUNCTIONAL, INTEGRATED, PERFORMANCE-BASED tasks.

Performance assessment, for the win.

4.) Teaching to the Test

As established, when we test, we can assess many things – components of larger tasks, artificial tasks designed to isolate skills (such as when we assess with nonsense words), or developmental tasks that we expect children and students to be capable of (such as identifying or producing rhyming words).

Again, this is done with a specific purpose – to acquire scores and compare children to others of the same age.

Where we run into trouble is that when children perform poorly on some of these tasks, there is a desire to then go and teach this TASK!!

Unfortunately, this is VERY common.  Research shows us that children must be able to apply phonological awareness (sound knowledge) skills when reading and spelling.  Therefore, we often assess sound knowledge skills when children are showing difficulty with reading and spelling.  HOWEVER, when children do poorly on these tests, what do you think happens?

That’s right … there are programs and people out there who are teaching sound knowledge.  These people CLAIM to be helping kids read and write.  However, when I look at some of these programs that are offered, they are downright inadequate.  Some of them don’t even use letters – they only focus on the SOUNDS!!  How can you teach reading and writing, a symbolic system, without using the symbols??


Research has proven that when children are given interventions that teach sound knowledge, they get higher scores on assessments of … SOUND KNOWLEDGE.  The impact on READING and WRITING, however, is much less.  The impact is significantly less as children get older.  Beyond Gr. 3, teaching sound knowledge has not been shown to impact reading and writing scores AT ALL!

See the problem?  A child had trouble reading.  They tested sound knowledge, found it was weak, and then tried to teach sound knowledge.  They didn’t teach reading, and the child didn’t improve in reading.  This is teaching to the test.

I see this VERY OFTEN when I find children rhyming goals on their Individual Program Plan or Individual Learning Plan.

Rhyming is one of the first phonological awareness skills to develop.  Children develop this skill implicitly, simply from being exposed to language.  No one teaches them about rhyming.  Through hearing the language, most children learn to recognize and enjoy when the vowel sound and all the sounds after the vowel are the same in two words (part – smart; half – laugh).

Rhyming is an excellent assessment task because when children DON’T learn to recognize rhymes implicitly, it shows us that their sound system is under-developed or disorganized.  By checking in on rhyming, we can quickly split kids into two camps – those that have brains that are organizing around sounds, and those that don’t.

For those that don’t – they need help!  They need instruction to help their brains organize around sounds!  However, that is not what usually happens after assessment!!

Rather than create an intervention program that is built around awareness of sounds and awareness of syllables, these children often get an intervention that is teaching RHYMING!!

This is a problem! For many reasons!

1.) Rhyming is an implicit skill! Instruction in syllables and sounds will have children become more aware of sounds and sound information.  These children will naturally “GET” rhyming – without ever having to teach it or practice it! (In other words, teaching rhyming is a giant waste of time!!)

2.) Because rhyming is viewed as the FIRST skill that develops in Phonological Awareness, many people don’t move PAST teaching this skill until it is mastered.  These children, then, don’t receive the instruction they need in syllables and sounds!  They fall BEHIND while someone teaches them rhyming!

3.) Rhyming is not very useful!  We don’t need it to read or write or spell.  It does have some application as a strategy, but this can be taught later when teaching phonograms or word families (and these are not necessarily dependent on rhyming even then).  It is not a FUNCTIONAL goal.

** Bear in mind that rhyming is a functional part of pre-school and early Kindergarten instruction.  It has its place.  However, if you are doing EXTRA work or practice, or have a child with an identified speech or language disorder, it is MUCH more functional to go after the units of words and language – syllables and sounds!

Teaching to the test is DANGEROUS as we end up wasting time on ineffective targets.  We want to always have an eye out for what will be FUNCTIONAL – what will help a child speak, read, or write?

If your child is in mid-Kindergarten or beyond and they have a rhyming goal on their Program Plan, you should be concerned.  Your child has a goal that does not benefit them.  They are FALLING BEHIND, and the research on what happens to kids who fall behind is SCARY.

The worst part?  Intervention with functional tasks can prevent kids from falling behind, AND help children catch up when administered early!  The right assessment, the right goals, and the right instruction make ALL the difference.

Underconfident about your child’s current learning plan?  I invite you to engage in a free consultation with a speech-language expert to talk about how your child learns.  Visit our parents page here.